Travel Theme: Pathways

Ailsa’s travel theme this week is pathways, which of course is one of my favorite things because they’re inherently liminal.  Maybe I’ve got an overly-developed sense of romanticism about pathways and roadtrips…though I don’t think so…but I always think of that Fellowship of the Rings quote:

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.

And so.

From an overpass looking down onto a train yard in Cleveland.

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Westward bound.

In the park outside l’Orangerie in Paris.  Please note: the lady is carrying a parasol.  A parasol.  And I don’t care if it’s actually an umbrella multitasking as a parasol.  It’s still a parasol.

This picture delights me every time I look at it.

This picture delights me every time I look at it.

My niece and nephew, in training for future adventures down pathways of their own.  At Knoebel’s, one of the greatest amusement parks in all the land (not that I’m biased).

World's most controlled road trip.

World’s most controlled road trip.

The Grand Canal, Dublin, which connects Dublin with the River Shannon, the longest river in Ireland and a major thoroughfare for…oh…pretty much all of time. Located right next to it? The Grand Canal Hotel (wonder where they came up with that name?), which was a pretty swanky spot to stay.  That was where I had literally the best and spendiest veggie burger I’ve ever eaten.

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I was happy to have this sight greet us whenever we left our hotel.

And…home sweet home.  We have loads of enticing back roads around here just open to imagination and exploration.

Ever forward!

Ever forward!

What pathways have you taken?

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Travel Theme: Mountains

Ailsa’s travel theme this week at Where’s My Backpack? is: mountains!  I’m honestly a little surprised I have any pictures of mountains.  I’m not a climber and a lot of my travels have been surprisingly flat.  The few memorable trips I took driving out across the American West, I had a film camera and haven’t scanned most of my pictures from those trips yet, though there will be a few.  Perhaps not so surprisingly, the mountains endure.

Ireland isn’t noted for its snow-capped massive peaks, but it does have Croagh Patrick, or St. Patrick’s mountain.  Legend says this is the place where Patrick endured a 40-day Lenten fast, banished the snakes from Ireland, and fought a demon and won, thereby saving the Irish from their heathen ways forever.

Croagh Patrick

Croagh Patrick, as seen from the parking lot of the Bertra House B&B.

Every year on the last Sunday in July, the penitent walk to the top of Croagh Patrick, to attend mass and go to confession at the chapel at the summit, which you can just make out in the photo.  The truly hardcore go barefoot.  To which I say, damn.

And then we’re off to sunny Tuscany, though on this day it was slightly cloudy Tuscany.  As I was on my Italy starter tour I hit the big three–Rome/Florence/Venice–and didn’t venture very far afield.  Next time I go, I’ll be up in those crazy little mountain towns.  For now, I just have to look at the mountains looming on the other side of Florence and wonder what it’s like.

Florence and the Tuscan mountains, from the Piazzale Michelangelo.

Florence and the Tuscan mountains, from the Piazzale Michelangelo.

There’s something really snug about being located in a river valley surrounded by mountains.  I understand the strategic benefits.

And here are some of the few pictures I have already scanned from my post-college, all-girl, westward-bound roadtrip; there will be more photos coming once I finish my blog about getting out there (really, I swear, I’ll finish it).

Up in the Grand Tetons.

Up in the Grand Tetons.

This was taken at a lookout near one of the summits, overlooking the Tetons and the Rockies.

Intrepid explorer Leslie checks out the scenery.

Intrepid explorer Leslie checks out the scenery.

I dig the snow on the ground.  In June.

And here are some mountains in Nevada, at sunrise.  If you’re ever going to drive across Route 80 in Nevada, sunrise is the right time to do it.

Nevada's stark landscape is softened by sunrise.

Nevada’s stark landscape is softened by sunrise.

Have you got any pictures of mountains to share?  Join the fun!  See you at Ailsa’s.

Cee’s Fun Photo Challenge: Monotone

This week, Cee’s photo challenge is a celebration of monotone.  It can be particularly challenging to make something that’s basically one color interesting and eye-catching and quite frankly, most of what I looked at in my photos that would have fit this challenge?  Yawn.  But here are some of the ones I liked most, with some short explanations and/or descriptions.

Homemade caramel corn.

I was informed last year that Christmas won’t be Christmas without a supply of this stuff, so I am now locked into providing caramel corn for my family, for the rest of my natural life.  There are worse things I could have to do.  It is pretty darn tasty!

Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland

I really like that the land and the sky are basically the exact same color in this picture, and I love that this piece of land has such a tremendous tidal fluctuation that the water, well receded in this shot, comes up to the rocks at high tide.

We’ll spend the rest of this blog in France…

An alley, Paris.

The French seem to be enamored of buildings made out of the same building material, or at least the same color building material, for large stretches of area (more on that later).  So looking down an alley can be weirdly disconcerting, because the matchy-match on either side makes it seem almost like walking down an interior hallway from which a roof has been removed.  A very tall hallway, perhaps, but a hallway nonetheless.

At Chateau de Chenonceau.

On the grounds of Chateau de Chenonceau, an OMFG I must be dreaming sort of place, if ever I’ve seen one, there is a hedge maze.  It’s not an immensely tall, creepy, lurking death sort of hedge maze a la The Shining but rather, a charming little whimsical hedge maze that you could chase your intended around while flirting over the tops of the bushes.  There’s a groovy little cozy-ish, semi-organic-looking gazebo in the middle of the hedge maze, with all sorts of frilly plants at its border.  This is from that gazebo, looking over the hedge maze and capturing all sorts of greenness that abounds.

At the Eiffel Tower, Paris.

Remember how I said that the French like to use similarly-colored building materials?  Behold!  Paris, as seen from an observation deck of the Eiffel Tower.

Zinnia in the garden, Chateau de Chenonceau.

I got yer zinnia, riiiiight heeeeere.  Chenonceau also had a working replica of a 16th-century farm on its grounds, and they grow a tremendous amount of fruit and all the flowers used to decorate the chateau’s rooms.  This was on that farm.  It is one of the most perfect, most explodingly orange flowers I’ve ever seen.

. The Catacombs, Paris.

The average visitor isn’t allowed to use a flash in the Catacombs, since constant exposure to light could damage the structure of the remains of roughly 6 million people laid to rest under the streets of Paris.  So you’ve got to use your low-light setting instead.  This is what you get.  The quote is from Book X of the Aeneid translates as: Every man has his day, the course of life is brief and cannot be recalled: but virtue’s task is this, to increase fame by deeds.  More or less, of course, depending on how flowery the translator gets, and considering some of the translations I’ve read of this quote alone….hoo wee!  They can get flowery.

I really like this, partly because it reminds me that life is short and it is what we make of it.  And perhaps more importantly, it also highlights that we’re all the same color on the inside.  Can you tell if these bones belonged to someone black, white, Asian?  Yeah.  Me neither.

Some of these photos may be in the spirit of the photo challenge more than to the letter of it, but it was a lot of fun finding stuff.  Here’s the link to Cee’s challenge again, if you don’t want to scroll to the top of the page.  Check out the other photos!  Or you could, of course, decide to play along.

Thanks for stopping by!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Green

A few years ago, my friend’s little girl asked me what was my favorite color.  It’s green, I told her, and then she squealed like only a four-year-old girl can and said, “HeeEEEeeEeeeeyyy!  That’s MY favorite color too!”  I asked her if we could share and she sized me up, mouth puckered to one side, head cocked, brow furrowed in thought and then–thankfully!–she nodded happily and said, “OK!”  From that point on we were favorite-color-is-green sisters.  She is now six and I’m pretty sure her favorite colors have shifted to pink and purple because she is a six year old girl, after all.  But I love that story, and it’s never far from the topic of “green” for me.  So this photo challenge is coming to you from me and my little friend Violet, even if her favorite color is purple now.

Public Gardens, Boston.

The Public Gardens are directly across the street from Boston Common.  On a map it sort of looks like it’s one big park, but the Common is clearly a city park while the Gardens always remind me of Fairyland.  There’s a swan boat floating nearby and willows twisting in the breeze.  I love this little structure. I have no idea what kind of birds those are; I’m totally willing to learn.

The Jewett Steps, Wellesley College.

One day during a summer trip to Boston I took a side trip to my alma mater.  Sensibly, the college does a lot of renovation work over the summer, when students are not present.  The Jewett Steps were always one of my favorite spots on campus so I was initially mildly disappointed to see the scaffolding but then I realized…it looked pretty cool.  I love how the trees are flourishing in the middle of all this straight, spare, pretty severe architecture, and that you can just see more trees through the arch in the distance and peeking over the sides.  It reminds me that nature will have her way with this, eventually, despite our best efforts.  I don’t want that to be for a fantastically long time, but it’s always there.  And!  That’s how it should be.

Where I live.  Beautiful Central PA.

Well.  It’s not exactly my backyard, but it’s really really close.

Chateau Renaissance, Finger Lakes, NY

Chateau Renaissance is this fun, interesting, quirky little winery on Keuka Lake.  The owners are pleasant and talkative and happy to see people.  The tastings are free and the tasting room is cozy.  They make a killer champagne rouge that I need more of, so if anyone’s going up that-a-way, please let me know.  And I have no idea why their back room has green lighting, but there you have it.  I felt like I was looking at some kind of movie set or something.

Venice, Italy.

Like there was any way I could not take a picture of the greenest boat in the world?  For some reason it pleases me to no end that it’s been dubbed the “Veritas”.

Murrisk, Ireland.

I had to finish with the Emerald Isle, land of my people.  The peak in the background is Croagh Patrick, St. Patrick’s holy mountain.  There are all sorts of legends that surround Croagh Patrick; this is where St. Patrick defeated the druids, banished the snakes, won the right to judge the Irish on Judgement Day.  The mountain is also surrounded by green, but as this is Ireland that’s like saying it’s surrounded by oxygen.  It’s true what they say: the Irish are wonderful hosts, and it is called the Emerald Isle for a reason.

Go here for more of this week’s photo challenge.  Thanks for reading!

Nosh: Irish Soda Bread

One of the things that I loved–and I mean loved, deeply and truly, to the warmest bottoms of my love-filled toes–about staying in B&Bs when I was in Ireland was the almost obscene proliferation of Irish soda bread in the morning.

Mmmmm.

Brown, almost nutty, chewy, dense, crusty.  Depending on the individual recipes (and perhaps region, I don’t know enough about it to state that for sure…yet…) some had a touch of honey, or some nuts, or fruit or oats mixed in.  But whether it was straightforward, unadorned soda bread or some fancified variant thereof, I loved them all.  Equally.  With unabashed passion.  Which is why, now that I’m slightly less afraid of making bread, I decided to try to make some at home.

And I thought I’d start out with a basic recipe and see how it goes.  It’s a really, really simple recipe that doesn’t require you be a rocket surgeon or brain scientist or have a Ph.D in yeast technology to successfully make.  It’s good, hearty, uncomplicated bread.  If only the rest of life were this simple.  The only way I tinkered with this at all: I used two cups of whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 cups of white AP flour, and I did not consider the caraway seeds optional.  Oh, yeah, and because I cannot help myself why God why I had to add something extra and hit the top of the bread with a little fresh-ground pepper right before baking.  But that’s it.  I swear.

Really.

Anyway.  Getting started.

Here’s everything you need. As in, everything.

Mix together all of your dry ingredients.  Remember, caraway = not optional.

Pretty straightforward. Not too many ways to screw up a dry mix, though I’m sure I could figure something out… 😉

And then mix in the buttermilk.  I ended up using a little bit more buttermilk than the recipe called for, and I think it gave me a slightly lighter end product.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.

The recipe says to mix enough buttermilk to form moist clumps.  So.  In reading some of the user reviews, a not-uncommon complaint was that the bread, in the end, turned out too tough.  The word “solid” was used, as was “brick”.  Think of the scene in About A Boy where Marcus throws the loaf of bread in the water and kills a duck with it.

That?  Was something I didn’t want.  As this is a quick bread that you don’t allow to rise (leavening agents like baking soda and buttermilk do that for you) and the “brick” reviews were kind of stressing me out, I thought it would be better to have a slightly more moist (i.e., buttermilk-leavened) dough.  Especially since I used a significant amount of whole wheat flour, which is a bit more dense than white AP flour.  I just added some extra buttermilk beyond the 1 1/2 cups the recipe calls for, one small splash at a time, until I had pulled all the aforementioned “moist clumps” into one gooey unit.

Perhaps stickier than the recipe intended, but still on track.

Turn it out on your prepared work surface, knead it for a minute or two, and then put it on your baking tray.  Don’t worry about shaping it until it’s on your tray, especially if you pick the “slightly more sticky” option.  Just gather it up and splop it front and center on the tray.  If anything, it may be a little tall; if that’s the case just press it down into shape and cut a deep X into the dough so it can vent.

Don’t be afraid, it’s not that delicate. Just hack at it.

Into the oven–preheated to 425°, of course–and forget about it.  For twenty minutes.  And then check on it and turn it, if it’s cooking too much on one side like my oven tends to do.  Fifteen minutes after that, you should have a beautiful loaf of bread.

Toasty brown? Check! Smells fantastic? Check!  Nicely risen? Check!

It’s true that if you turn it over and knock on the bottom crust, you’ll hear a vaguely hollow-ish thump.  That’s a good sign.  Lots of air pockets for sound to echo in.

Let it cool for a few minutes…or however long you can stand it…and then?

Slice + butter + jam = yes.

I give you the bread of my people.  See it’s nice and light in the middle, not condensed?  It’s maybe a little less dense than some breads, but not brickish, and totally delicious.  Enjoy.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Foreign

One of the fun things about traveling is getting to that point where you know that you’re not home any more.  Though you do have to be careful about becoming weirdly jaded–cities are cities and they all contain common elements–traffic, garbage, pushy people, great shopping–that can override your sense of appreciation for what’s definitive and amazing, though some cities do make their unique characteristics much more difficult to ignore.  I’m looking at you, Paris.  As for traveling through the countryside…well…I live in the country.  I know what a cow looks like.

See?  Weirdly jaded and not groovy at all.

Below are a few photos that represent for me the moments when I fully appreciated the impact of being somewhere new and different, that had much more to offer than a wide array of stylish shoe shops.

Inis Mór, Ireland

Staring out into the North Atlantic from the edge of Inis Mór (Aran Islands)

One of these days I’m going to go in and fix that white blotch on the picture.  This was a film camera, not digital, and apparently the film had a little flaw.  Anyway.  Inis Mór, one of the little fingertips of granite poking out of the North Atlantic off Ireland’s west coast, is quiet.  During the day Kilronan, the town we stayed in, bustles with activity.  Tourists come in from Galway and shop for Aran Island sweaters (I have one in green) and other crafter’s goods.  At night, many of them are gone, and the island falls profoundly quiet.  It’s a quiet I’ve rarely had a chance to experience and can be found if you wander only a short distance away from the center of town.  It’s well-nigh impossible to photograph quiet, but I can photograph empty and deserted.  We encountered a father and son pair of hikers on the way up to this spot–and that’s it.  To get here, you have to climb over uneven terrain, and as you can see by the clouds the weather isn’t always on your side.  There’s no easily-graded hiking path, there’s no handrails, there are no guardrails or warning signs to keep you from the ledge.  I was glad to be so profoundly out of my element.  It’s good to recognize the times that you stand on the edge of the world.  There are all sorts of ways we can stare into the abyss; this was just one of them.

Paris, France

Along the Seine, Paris

Keeping in line with my statement about being weirdly jaded, Paris shares a lot with other cities.  Its avenues are far more tree-lined and gracious, and the art and architecture you find everywhere you go…amazing.  It is a spectacular city and one of my top three (Venice and Boston also jockey for the top position, dependent on my mood) but again, it’s a city.  You can still get hungry and sweaty and cranky walking around, you can still get tired of getting jostled and just want to chill out in your hotel room.  What you can’t necessarily have, though, is someone playing sax along the Seine, at night, under a street lamp.  This was somewhere near the Île de la Cité, the island on which Notre Dame is located, and we came across him after a long day of walking and looking and stuffing ourselves full of food and sights.  I remember hearing the sound waft up, and I had to follow it to its source.  There he was, looking like he stepped off the set of a movie, under the light with a few nighttime listeners sitting around.  I was mesmerized as I realized just how far from home I was, and I loved every moment of it.

Rome, Italy

The Colosseum, Rome

We got to Rome on a Monday.  Monday is not the best day to be in Rome, if you’re a tourist, because a lot of museums and such are closed, unless it’s a biggie like the Colosseum.    Since visiting the Colosseum was on our must-do list, and it was one of the things that was open, it was the first thing we did once we got to Rome and dropped off our stuff at the hotel.  We took the metro, got off at the Colosseo stop and…stood blinking our eyes in slack-jawed disbelief as we walked up the metro steps and saw the Colosseum rise before us.  There it was, sitting in the middle of traffic, a feast for the eyes before you even step in the door.  (I’ve said this before but I can’t stress it enough.  FYI, if you do go to Rome, get the Roma Pass.  You’ll be in that door so much more quickly.)  The thing about the Colosseum is, it’s so well preserved and maintained, you can’t help but find yourself transported.  I found it impossible to not step outside myself and imagine sitting in the crowd, or find sympathy for the combatants waiting in the (now exposed) hallways under the main floor, who knew their likely death would serve as entertainment for the crowd.  The Colosseum didn’t just stress to me that I was in a different city, but it took me to a different time and a different mindset, and forced me into a humane and human exercise I didn’t expect.  And that?  Is not something you get every day.

You can see more of this week’s “Foreign” photo challenge here.

Travel Theme: Tradition

When I was in Ireland I thought, here I am, among my people.  My father’s family is Irish on his mother’s side; my roots and, apparently, some distant family, are in Cork, though I didn’t know about my kin in the motherland until after I’d returned home from my trip.  Another story for another day.  Anyway.

So, Ireland.  Where I seemed designed to fit.  Where my skin and hair drank in the relatively non-humid days and cool weather.  Where I already knew about Irish tradition and wanted to see the places where those traditions were held most strongly.  We traveled to the Aran Islands and listened to the locals speak Irish in the pubs.  We visited very small churches (note the lack of a roof, from the traditional thatch having fallen away)

Though it’s not the smallest church, it’s still pretty tiny.  And that cow was cranky.

And hiked up towards Dun Aengus, an Iron Age fort and important archaeological site…

It’s the black hump rising out of the horizon line.

…BUT!  We came up at the fort from the far side of the field it’s on and would have had to pick our way over a dreadfully uneven landscape, at the top of a cliff…

North Atlantic, meet the world. World, North Atlantic.

…with a wind that was blowing…I hesitate to guess the speed but it was constant and fast enough that we had to lean in to make forward progress, hair standing straight up, while my denim jacket kept catching the wind like it was a big canvas sail.  At the top of a cliff.

Did I mention it started raining?

So that was the closest we got to the cliff that day and, after our (slippery, and unfortunately slow) descent, decided the best approach for the rest of the evening would be to go to a pub, get some dinner, and have a cocktail.  What’s the best place in town for music, we asked, and a patron at the pub we were in directed us to Joe Watty’s…turns out said patron was the bartender on duty at Joe Watty’s that night, so it was fun to see a familiar face once we got there.  So OK, great times ahead!  In the Gaeltacht, the traditional repository of Irish culture, we were sure to hear some real, down-home, deedly-dee music, right?

Yeeeee. Haw.

Only the band playing that night was a country-western band.  My initial thought was, “I didn’t move from Texas to fly to Ireland to hear country music,” though apparently, I was wrong because it seems that was exactly what I did.  And these guys?  ROCKED.  I only wish I could remember what they called themselves.  The lead guitar was all done on keyboard, they had boots and big hats and spurs that jingle-jangle-jingle.  And let me repeat myself: they ROCKED.  So while the music might not have technically been traditional, the craic was in full swing and the dancing didn’t stop, and isn’t that what a night in an Irish pub in the middle of the North Atlantic is, traditionally, all about?

Read more of Ailsa’s travel theme and the other traditions people have observed, here.

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